Book Review: Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Publisher:  William Morrow

Summary: An exciting and thought-provoking science fiction epic—a grand story of annihilation and survival spanning five thousand years.

What would happen if the world were ending?

A catastrophic event renders the earth a ticking time bomb. In a feverish race against the inevitable, nations around the globe band together to devise an ambitious plan to ensure the survival of humanity far beyond our atmosphere, in outer space.

But the complexities and unpredictability of human nature coupled with unforeseen challenges and dangers threaten the intrepid pioneers, until only a handful of survivors remain . . .

Five thousand years later, their progeny—seven distinct races now three billion strong—embark on yet another audacious journey into the unknown . . . to an alien world utterly transformed by cataclysm and time: Earth.

When I decide to pick up a book in the 800+ page range (read: download because I no longer do tomes in hard copy unless I have no other choice) , I know going in that I’m going to have to commit to this thing and to that end, I make an even more concerted effort to finish it. I’ve yet to read one of these that keeps up the tension throughout and moves at a blistering pace but that’s not why I read them. I read them because more often than not, I find them satisfying reads once I’ve finished them, despite the, as perceived by me, lulls, info dumps and general meandering. Seveneves was no exception to this and I am very glad that I read it. It was time well spent. To its credit, when I put it down, it did nag at me to pick it back up again because I genuinely wanted to know what would happen next.

This is not heavy on character depth and is heavy on technical information. I’m a bit of a space geek and also have a deep fascination with long term human viability living in space, space stations and habitats and even with those interests, I found some of this overwrought. Many times, we are introduced to a character interaction and one says something and what follows for the next four or more pages is the recitation of the seminal technical or scientific explanation of a character’s backstory that is to be illuminating to why the conversation the characters in the midst of having, is taking place. It’s a bit of a pacing challenge to remember what the line of dialogue was that this is all in aid of when the other character in the conversation, responds to what was said many pages back. The only saving grace is that it happens so often that your brain trains for it and this shift and stall gets easier to read smoothly as you forge on. It’s not that the information isn’t interesting, it’s that it comes in in large quantity and is, in all honesty, quite dry.

The explanation for the title of the book comes in far into the book but I liked how it was done. At that point in the book, there’s just been the culmination of a very exciting chain of events that to me was more exciting that the coming of the Hard Rain and the demise of billions of people stuck on Earth (I felt as removed from the great die off as the people on the Ark did). And if I never read “in any case” as a phrase again, it’ll be too soon. It may be the most overused phrase in the book and it irritated me.

The characters were not deep but I do admit that I was pulled in by Doc DuBois (Dr Degrasse Tyson insert), Sean Probst (Elon Musk insert), Dinah MacQuarrie, Ivy Xiao, Julia Bliss Flaherty (J.B.F for short), Tekla, Moira, Aida & in the last bit of the book, Kath Two then Three. I cared about their fates and the long term results of the decisions they made and all the consequences as well. There are plenty of other characters along the way to be sure but none of them were really rendered to remain with me much (with the exception of Ariane in Book for her sheer cunning). When the names of some from Book 1 in the story resurface in Book 2, they were memorable enough to know why their mention was relevant.

I really enjoyed the coverage of the three years immediately following the Hard Rain from the perspective of those on the Ark. From beginning to the end of the Big Ride, a lot happened and it was both sad and also believable to me to see how things unfurled, factions formed and how the very human quest for power could blind people to the dire consequences of actions and even words. It certainly was a bucket of cold water on the idea that in the face of fewer than 4000 people, humanity would and could put all else aside and get to the job of making sure we stick together and work things out peacefully and without devolving into killing, stealing and cannibalizing everything from communal property to each other. Grim but well portrayed. That humanity survives ultimately here is as much a wonder as it is a choice by apparently the most manageable number of us left to work together sufficiently enough to get the job done. Eight.

I absolutely admit to being mostly disconnected to the back end of the story where we are catapulted 5000 years into the future and learn about all kinds of things relating to the people who have become humanity. And reading the entire thing didn’t do a thing to invest me more deeply though I did enjoy finding out what happened to the two groups Dinah and Ivy knew were below on Earth when the Hard Rain began but telling of it felt tedious and I just wanted to know and be done with the book. The last 200 pages are the hardest slog but I’m glad I pushed through. Justin Cronin’s The Passage had a similar time jump with all new characters that I felt jarring and disconnected but like that one, I kept at it and was not ultimately disappointed. It’s still not a storytelling device I much enjoy or I haven’t yet read one where it doesn’t feel jarring & disconnected.

I’d recommend this to speculative science fiction fans & even to fans of Stephenson’s work (this is the second of his I’ve read). If you undertake it, bring your attention span, patience and determination as you’ll need it and will be rewarded.

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